In a moment that we are meant to take as a sign that its protagonist has hit rock bottom, Sideways (2004) puts failed novelist and wine snob Miles (Paul Giamatti) on all fours outside a bedroom in a slovenly, bombed-out looking tract home; there, he watches with surprise and horror as an overweight, tattooed, working-class couple passionately fuck, the man taking intense pleasure in his wife’s recounting of how she had seduced another man. There is much to say about this primal scene of class abjection, but I will start by noting that it echoes the inaugural scene of Alexander Payne’s cinematic oeuvre. His 1996 debut film, Citizen Ruth (which, like all of Payne’s films, was co-written with Jim Taylor), opened by similarly positioning the spectator outside the filthy bedroom of a white-trash couple, their tattered mattress surrounded by empty 40-oz. malt liquor bottles, as the title character (Laura Dern), an aficionado of inhalants, endures joyless intercourse with her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. One might trace the trajectory of Payne’s career by noting that where the scene from his latest film—which is also his best received—provides us with an on-screen delegate, whose discerning middle-class gaze we are meant to share, the opening sequence of Ruth does not align our perspective on its delinquent working-class protagonist with any reassuring spectatorial stand-in. One might also note that the abjected couple in Sideways seems to be having a much better time—and that it is now the middle-class voyeur who has the chemical addiction. All of these developments point to the complicated, ambivalent rhetoric of class that Payne has developed over the course of his films, a rhetoric that takes a new turn in his latest, Oscar-winning release.
That Payne’s cinema is centrally about class is clear—or at least would be clear to any culture that did not struggle mightily to repress this fundamental condition of social life. The subversive frisson of Citizen Ruth comes as much from its protagonist’s unrepentant resistance to standards of middle-class dignity (indeed, even her choice of intoxicant makes trucker speed look chic) as from the film’s allegedly irreverent take on the abortion debate. Meanwhile, the comically monstrous ambition of Election’s (1999) Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is identified as the product of a shrill class ressentiment instilled in Tracy by her stewardess-turned-paralegal mother. The impending tragedy that retired insurance actuary Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) attempts to avert in About Schmidt (2002) is the upcoming wedding of his daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) to Randall (Dermot Mulroney), a handlebar mustachioed, mulleted doofus whose family resides in lower-middle-class squalor on a street where shirtless men blithely toss their garbage onto the lawn.
Yet the class condescension of these films is complicated by their portrayals of middle-class characters. Ruth finds a way to valorize its title character by critiquing the instrumentalist handling of her situation by anti- and pro-choice advocates—a process that discourages the audience from having a similarly reductive relationship to her. Similarly, in Election we see Tracy largely through the eyes of high school teacher Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick), whose annoyance at her relentless striving is mixed with a barely sublimated desire for her and resentment at his own station in life; any disdain for Tracy we might share with him is thus called into question. The audience is forced to adopt an equally dubious perspective in Schmidt, as we are privy only to the information available to its solipsistic and emotionally self-deluding title character. As a result, we are led to recognize that his dismay at his daughter’s choice of partner seems to be as much the product of his disconnection from Jeannie (and from virtually everyone else) as that of Randall’s apparent unsuitability. Our understanding of Randall and of his dissolute post-hippie family, we come to feel, may be constrained by Schmidt’s insistently blinkered viewpoint.
In its treatment...